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The Modern Kitchen: 1920

Washington, D.C., circa 1920. "Kitchen of Ernest G. Walker," newspaperman and real-estate developer. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative. View full size.

Washington, D.C., circa 1920. "Kitchen of Ernest G. Walker," newspaperman and real-estate developer. Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative. View full size.


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Her Name

It makes me sad that so many of these old photos fail to identify the Black people in them, so I spent a few hours researching the woman pictured here.

Her name is Elizabeth Bagley according to the 1920 census. She was born in Virginia and is a 75 year old widow working as a cook at 1522 R Street NW (as noted, the home of Ernest G. and Romaine Walker)

The 1910 census spells her name "Bagby" and says she is 60 years old.

Hot and Cold

My 1928 bathroom sink has separate taps for hot and cold water. Old hot water systems often flowed at a slower rate than the cold water supplied from the main to the house. The reason the two were not combined into one spigot was because the stronger cold water pressure could cause the hot water to flow backward.

I have been cooking on a 1940 Beach (Canadian) gas stove since I bought it in 1970 for $25. Super baking oven, and the broiler is in the oven, rather than in a drawer under it. The one-piece cast iron top weighs 15 pounds. The trash burner next to it also provides hot water to a radiator in the front hall.

Weeds of Love

For time immemorial children have brought their mothers, grandmothers, nannies, mammies and cooks "flowers" (i.e. weeds) from the yard to say "I love you," and these women have put them in drinking glasses or canning jars on the kitchen table.

Avon calling

The two "alarms" above the doors are doorbells. Presumably one for the front door and the other for the side or back door which would be the tradesman's entrance.

The maid or housekeeper would answer the phone and the doorbell in a home like this which is why the bells and phone, including the switching box to send calls up to other parts of the house, are in the kitchen.

Cooking with the gas turned off

Chambers Gas Ranges had insulated ovens that let you "cook with the gas turned off." Example: a stuffed 12 pound turkey in a roaster; put in a cold oven. Run the gas on full for 45 minutes. Shut off the gas and flue to keep the heat in (lever on front of each oven near the gas pipes). The turkey will continue to cook from the retained heat and in three hours you have a great meal ready. It saves fuel cost and unlike modern stoves, the food is not dried out from being cooked with the gas burning all the time.

[What keep the roast cooking is radiant heat from the cast iron enclosure. Which has more to do with mass than insulation. In modern ovens, the gas isn't on all the time. The thermostat shuts it off once cooking temperature is reached. - Dave]

The black cylindrical apparatus over the back left burner was a Thermodome. You lowered it over a boiling pot to continue cooking with the gas turned off.

Chambers 1927 "Idle Hour" Cookbook:

Cooking Hood Again

Pages 2-5 of the installation instructions explain everything.

[Sooty is correct! And I am corrected. - Dave]

Cooking Hood

The big can above the burners is a fuel-saving device. It's an insulated hood which could be lowered over the burner once the pan was up to cooking heat, allowing the burner to be turned off an cooking to continue using the "stored heat" in the pan. Not sure how well it worked.

[A colorful theory, but how would that work for pots and pans with handles? As noted below, the cans are hot-water reservoirs. - Dave]

[Actually Sooty is right on the money. - Dave]

Not Always Expensive

I cook every day on a 1934 Magic Chef I bought for $120. I'm the second owner and it has never been restored. I think the key to its longevity is the fact that it was never out of use, it was well cared for, and very well made. It easily weighs 3 times as much as a modern stove of similar size. It is packed with asbestos, so it holds heat well.

Also, I have a 1926 duplex with the Magnesite floors just as described, in the bathrooms. The floors are indestructible. Why they ever stopped installing them, I have no idea.

More about Valves

After zooming quite a bit to the stove hardware, I don't think those extra levers are valves at all, but simply latches for the burner-valve guards. Moved in the opposite direction to the one shown, they'd latch the burners off, a good idea since the valves are at small-child height.

The third of the vertical ovens does indeed appear to be adjustable, but missing its porcelain knob.

And the big can above the burners, brethren, is a cistern. For hot (well, warm) water. It made use of waste heat from the stove.

[Actually they are heat-retention hoods. See above. - Dave]

Big Japanese Vase

The very large vase standing next to the ice box is a late 19th Century Japanese "floor vase." Many of these were sold by Japanese importers at the numerous American world's fairs between 1890 and 1916, and some of them were as large as six feet tall. They were often displayed in the corners of American dining rooms with tall flowers, peacock feathers or pampas grass fronds. Here is a similar but slightly smaller version from one of the Imari kilns.


Back during WWII I spent my school vacations working on an ice wagon and many is the 50 pound chunk of ice I have placed in boxes like the one in the picture, but I never saw one that loaded from the back side. I remember one that I had to fill from the top. A lot of people out on rural routes did not even have an ice box but used a #2 galvanized wash tub to store their ice in. They had quilts in there as insulation and generally bought no more than 25 pounds at a time. 25 pounds sold for 10 cents as I remember it.

The table covering is another of those vanished items from the 1920s and earlier -- oilcloth. I can still smell it to this day. Not an unpleasant odor and quite serviceable. I have a Confederate cavalry sabre that has an oilcloth-covered handle wrapped with iron wire. My Rebel forefathers had to use oilcloth because leather was needed for horse harnesses, revolver holsters etc.

That black round thing

hanging on the corner of the stove . What is it?

Proper attire

I don't see a "ratty apron" or "pinchy shoes." The apron just looks like it is performing its natural function as an apron and her shoes just look like shoes. The cook's workplace was clean and well-fitted and her job was certainly important.

Being a cook in a kitchen like this was not a horrible job. My Irish grandmother was a cook in just such a kitchen, working for an aristocratic lady. I knew her years later when she worked quite happily in her own smaller kitchen. And her apron always looked used! And she always wore leather shoes - no sneakers for her!

Cooking with gas

I've owned and restored a few stoves similar to this one. The pipes on the front are nickel-plated gas lines. The valves screw into that pipe and are adjustable. The bell shape in front of the valve is part of the burner and is where you make the air adjustment. In good condition, old stoves like this one still work very well.

Intriguing Stove

The gas plumbing for the stove is really interesting. Two of the ovens have the usual small valve with the porcelain knob, plus a much larger lever below that's held off by (presumably) the safety bumpers. What would they be for? An extra-large flame for preheating? The third oven (warming oven?) doesn't seem to be adjustable.

I noticed in a previous post that manuals are still available for this stove. But my curiosity didn't extend to $15.

Odds and Ends

Looks as though the kitchen has all the mismatched china and a couple matching serving pieces. The matching set, which still may be everyday china are in the hallway or service porch with the icebox.

Interesting Kitchen

I found a few interesting items. The box on the wall beneath the phone appears to be some sort of primitive intercom system. Above the doorway there is another box which may have some sort of bulb or light cover protruding from its left side, about a foot away is a bell. Could this have been an alarm of some sort? Also, I sold plenty of Chambers gas ranges back in the 1950s and 60s. They were a high end product and like the Blackstone Washer it probably weighed 100 pounds more than a Caloric or Tappan. Chambers competition was the Crown Gas Range. Crown would custom build ranges for their end users and they would come with an engraved escutcheon inscribed with the family's name.

Wish my stove was that multi-functional

She's got two separate ovens, broiler, and I'm guessing bread/plate warmer at the top. Me want. Although this oven/range would never pass code today. There is a fella somewhere in Pennsylvania that retrofits these antique stoves. And they sure ain't cheap.

Oh, and love the amount of cabinet space too.


I wonder what she's preparing, betcha it was yummy.

On the Table

Probably oilcloth -- cotton or muslin impregnated with linseed oil.


This is the very model of the modern kitchen, indeed. They have two cabinets full of china, a phone, AND a light over the sink. I wonder what's in the double-boiler-y thing next to the clock. I can't tell if she's making breakfast or dinner -- I wish I could see what she's doing.

Magnesite Floor

The kitchen floor is [or at least could be] a waterproof concrete-like product called magnesite, and has continuous mop boards molded in to facilitate easy cleaning. Magnesite was a popular choice for upscale kitchen and other utility floors in the teens and twenties, and was also used for kitchen counters and even sinks. The Will Rogers Ranch House in Malibu still has its magnesite kitchen counters, which are an attractive pale doeskin color. It was also tinted with pigments and scored to look like quarry tile flooring in 1920s houses. My Materials Handbook defines it thus: "A flooring material composed of calcined magnesite, magnesium chloride, sawdust, ground quartz or silica, and fine powdered wood waste; used as a finishing surface on concrete floor slabs."

I'm Amazed....

how many gas stoves and ovens seen in the pictures from this era, are connected to a chimney flue. Modern gas stoves do not connect to a chimney flue or any vent.

["Gas" back then meant coal gas, which was poisonous. - Dave]

State-of-the-art technology!

I hope that the beautifully tidy kitchen, the flowers on the table, and the satisfaction of a state-of-the-art Chambers stove helped that poor woman's quality of life, wearing that ratty apron and those pinching boots. Apparently, this must have been taken in the late 20s:

The Chambers logo changed sometime in the 20s from triangular to circular.

[Below, an ad from September 1920 showing a Chambers stove with the round logo. - Dave]


Interesting to note that the gas oven is vented to the outside. And we've sure come a long ways in flooring, haven't we?

Modern Times

I wonder what material is on the two tables. It looks to be tacked down to the one on the left and draped over the one next to the stove. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was vinyl....but I know better.

Also, I'll bet the ice box is on an exterior wall and the top right door is for ice. It was popular at this time to have an ice door on the outside of the house that fed directly in to the ice box. The delivery man could put in a new ice block without even knocking on the door.

Ahhh, modern conveniences.

Two Kitchen Questions

1) What is the purpose of the pipe-shaped apparatus on the upper and lower portions of the front of the range? It doesn't appear to be part of the gas line.

[They're bumpers that protect the valves. - Dave]

2) What technological or inspirational leap was required to create a single spigot on a kitchen (or bathroom) sink that would handle the outflow of both hot and cold water and — mercy me! — allow them to mix as warm as well? I've always wondered this in connection with older plumbing.

Bonus question: In the jar on the side table, that's the best Mr. Walker could do for flowers?

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